Ben Tune should know within a few short weeks of the new year whether his rugby career is over. The Wallaby wing, who missed the World Cup through injury, is ready to take the definitive test after months out with patella tendonitis. He is not likely to play in the 2004 Super 12 - it is now just a question of whether he will ever play again. At nearly 27, he has already confronted the possibility that a great career may be over.
Tune was one of the stars of the Australian side which won the 1999 World Cup. But he had surgery six months ago on both his damaged knees. It has been a success in that he no longer suffers the excruciating pain which once dogged his every step. But whether he will ever again play the sport which he once graced, remains to be seen.
"Once I start running again, if everything goes well, I should be able to play again at some level within two months," Tune said. "But if it is not happening, that will be it. I was supposed to be running by early December but that was not possible.
"But it would not break my heart if I couldn't play again. The pain I used to have constantly is now non-existent, which is fantastic."
Tune was one of the world's most exciting players at the peak of his game. But he knows that he gambled with his fitness during his career and could be about to pay the ultimate price. His story is a warning to all modern day professionals who may be tempted or persuaded to play through injuries.
"I first injured a patella in 1998 but never took the time off to get it right," Tune said. "When you are playing for your country, you try to put such things out of your mind. I tried to play through it but it got worse and worse.
"But I have no regrets about that. In 1998, we beat New Zealand 3-0 in the series and won the Bledisloe Cup. And 1999 obviously speaks for itself. Winning the World Cup was fabulous.
"To play through injuries comes down to a little like a business decision. You take as much emotion out of the decision as you can and just weigh up what you may be missing at that particular time compared to what you might miss in the future."
Where Tune has been smart, though, is in his planning for a future. Already, he has lined up potentially lucrative business opportunities, a process he began almost as soon as he was in trouble with injuries.
"I'd hate to see people putting everything in like myself but then getting a bad injury and having nothing," he said. "I have other things in my life. Being injured has shown me you can't play rugby forever. It's important knowing what you want to do after rugby. Getting work experience is vital."
The work initiative programme set up by the Australian Rugby Union is among the best in the world. Tune, for example, benefited and has recently acquired a Bank of Queensland franchise in Brisbane. He is also considering opportunities in the car industry.
"Of course there is a fear I may never play again," he said. "But I am not afraid of that at all. I am quite ready to embrace life after rugby. It is a real possibility I may not recover.
"But my day-to-day standard of living is now much improved after surgery because the pain has gone. But I know there is a big difference between walking without pain and playing international rugby again."
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